Monday 19 October 2015

Phenological Anxiety and Abeyance

Last year at this time, I watched the leaves flame out with peculiar detachment: for the first time, I was leaving my temperate deciduous autumn during the brief interval between leaf fall and snow fall, dissociating the exhilarating experience of gorgeous foliage transformation from the anxious anticipation of winter. This year, I am attempting to channel that dissociation to mitigate the seemingly unavoidable resignation that comes with the end of warm season foliage.

Psychologically, part of what was interesting about trading in my usual excruciatingly cold winter for a cool southern hemisphere summer in Dunedin was that it did not feel quite like summer—it was much more like coasting in a pleasant autumn/spring holding pattern, the kind of seasonal dawn/dusk people in places like Florida and California must experience, complete with a full panoply of broadleaf evergreens whose home range just doesn’t extend quite this far. This in-between season is quite a contrast with the ominous gloaming of both the second half of autumn and the first half of spring in Minnesota, both of which twinkle with the starry brightness of long clear nights and the occasional crystalline sunny days of a winter too cold to snow but also stretch out with snow cover that one knows will last almost half of the year before the leaves flesh out again. Even if it might be t-shirt and swimming weather (like it is today!) while the leaves are crunchy on the beach in Minneapolis, one knows that the lake could freeze within the week, and this leads to a certain pinchedness that contrasts the relaxed abandon elicited by extended warmth in summer.

In a Dunedin kind of summer, any warm morning is almost certain to be followed by a stiff breeze off the cold ocean separating you from Antarctica, sucked in by the lifting warming of interior Otago. The short half-life of warmth prompts somewhat more structured adventure: one is motivated to get out into the promise of warmth but without the illusion of extended heat or the punishment of overheating. This is consistent with spring/fall activities of my prior experience, times when I have found it easiest to plan around the possibility of being outside, getting some sunshine and warmth in whatever time of day best allows it, and then retreating inside to get work done with the rest of the time—a rhythm that feels well balanced and measured, overextended into neither lassitude nor action.

The summer/winter rhythm, in contrast, often feels like one of allowing catch-up relaxation time contrasted with the holing up of cold months recognized to not be much good for fun. Everyday winter sports like biking or snowshoeing or skiing (even as a commute) are process-intensive enough with their bundling and equipment to feel laborious. And the cold is punishing enough to elicit a constant low-level vigilance. Even on days nice enough to lounge around outside if dressed warmly enough, for example, I’ve had police stop to make sure I wasn’t dead when trying to soak up some sun sitting against a tree in the park. Constant reminders of how not to be killed by the weather require a fair amount of the “hygge” coziness that has become a trendy aspiration of cold winter sojourns.

So as I watch orange, red, and yellow leaves stream off the trees today in the uncertain mid-autumn sunny warmth, I am compelled by ways to build up my measure of phenological equanimity in the face of oncoming winter. Phenology is the study of the signs of seasonal progression, and it was an unusual gift last year to be able to watch these signs without bracing for the onrush of seasonal symptoms one expects next (ice! snow! dryness crinkly with static, dark mornings, afternoons, and long nights and slippery roads). This year, I find myself poking at the edges of this anticipation in a more exploratory way, wondering how to build mitigation by other means than escape.

I remind myself that I already organize my daily commute around sun gathering, and that I own a reasonable trunkful of warm winter clothes. The walking and bike commute may soon be more difficult, but I have just discovered a bus route that stops within two blocks of my home and office. I am looking for some better sources of humidity, and spaces to be active and at ease without a lot of extra clothing this winter. If I could build into my schedule regular sessions working in community greenhouses, pleasant spaces, and sunny places to write, can those feel as ordinary, well-balanced, and un-emergency as staying out of the high sun in summer or keeping the garden weeded?

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